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It's All About the Grants (Ulysses, That Is)

Maybe one day it really will be all about the Benjamins, but Mr. Franklin's face appears on the $100 bill, and today, we're talking $50s. Because after a couple of decades in which the U.S. banking industry appeared dead set on making the $20 bill pretty much the only form of currency widely available to Americans, the tide appears to be shifted toward General Ulysses S. Grant, he of the fifty.

More and more, I'm finding that however much I suck out of the ATM, the money comes out in as many fifties as can be included in my total withdrawal. Twenties were the currency of choice for so long that it's hard to remember that back in the Stone Age of ATMs--the 1970s--the machines dispensed $5s and $10s too. But banks gravitated toward $20s because it was safer and more convenient to stock ATMs with as much as possible of one denomination. If taxi drivers, convenience shops and gas stations didn't like the onslaught of $20s, that was just too bad.

Now it's the fifty's turn. With the average withdrawal from an ATM hovering at around $100, we're going to be seeing more and more $50s coming out of the machines. But that hasn't yet made the bigger bills any more acceptable to those retail industries that still deal in lots of cash. I've tried to use $50s lately at a car wash, restaurant, bar, dry cleaner and supermarket, and in each case, the cashier expressed some form of exasperation or suspicion--either checking to see if the bill was counterfeit by writing on it with a special pen (the Federal Reserve says that method is essentially useless), or rolling the eyes, or making a fuss about not having a compartment in the cash drawer for $50s.

American Bankers Association spokesman Don Rhodes said there's no nationwide trend toward dispensing $50s, but banks in more affluent areas, and in resort locales, do seem to bump up the currency. "From an anecdotal perspective, I would think that banks or other ATM providers would load their ATMs with cash combinations that would be most in demand by their customers," Rhodes said in reply to my questions. "There would be no incentive for a bank to put in $50 or $100 bills if their customers would not demand them. Therefore, I think loading machines with ... the standard $10 and $20 combination or with just $20s would still be the most common in most of the country. In high cost of living areas, such as New York, or resort areas, such as Aspen, that may be different."

Indeed, Rhodes said, he used an ATM in Aspen a few years ago, at the base of the Aspen Mountain lift, that dispensed only $100 bills. That's an extreme case, obviously, but an indicator that local economics play a role in what gets stocked.

(I was surprised to learn that those of us who do our banking through ATMs are not the majority; heck, we're not even the plurality. According to American Bankers Association stats, 32 percent of Americans still most often go into branches, 26 percent rely primarily on ATMs and an equal number do their banking mostly online.)

If banks are moving to the $50 as the standard currency, the private industry is a couple of steps ahead of the government. The folks down at Printing and Engraving still make vastly more twenties than fifties--there's about $115 billion in $20s floating around the country, versus $62 billion in $50s.

And fifties are so rarely used that they tend to last more than twice as long as any smaller denomination bill--each $50 bill lives an average of 4.6 years, compared to two years for a $20 and 1.3 years for a fiver (which is oddly the shortest-lived of our bills.)

Are you getting fifties from your local ATM? And if so, are you having any trouble getting shops and others to take the bills?

By Marc Fisher |  April 3, 2007; 7:42 AM ET
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I've noticed that when I use my gun to hold up people in affluent areas I tend to get more $50 and $100 bills; but I still get a lot of $20's too. I don't know if they come from ATMs though.

Posted by: Stick | April 3, 2007 8:36 AM

The only time I've gotten a fifty from an ATM was by accident-- somehow a fifty got into the twenties that the ATM usually dispensed. And no, I didn't report the error.

Posted by: Anon | April 3, 2007 9:23 AM

See that's why they have to change the
gun-laws in DC, Stick is a smart criminal
(hell he's able to read/write this blog).

Posted by: Frankey | April 3, 2007 9:55 AM

The Washington Post has committed the cardinal sin of newspapering - they have buried the lead of your weekly discussion! It *almost* makes me want to surf over to the New York Times.

Posted by: Tomcat | April 3, 2007 10:03 AM

My credit union ATMs still dispense $5 bills as well as $20 bills. Personally I hate it when I get $50 bills because of just the reaction you noted above - no one is used to dealing with them, and making change for them is a royal pain (or at least stores act that way). Can't feed them into a Metro machine or other automated machines, either, so their utility is limited.

And I only use ATMs for withdrawals or depositing checks - never for depositing cash. After sitting through two DC grand juries and hearing testimony on how cash deposits are handled out of ATMs, I don't see how anyone ever uses them for that. With cash, it all comes down to your word versus the cashier who checked it. At least with checks you have a trail of sorts that can be followed.

Posted by: Moose | April 3, 2007 10:11 AM

Yet another reason to get rid of the $1 bill.

Posted by: Cosmo | April 3, 2007 10:37 AM

We call the $20's 'Yuppie Meal Tickets' and they're a booger to try to get change. I take a commuter bus and 10 trips are $38.25. Naturally, when the ATM spits out 2 $20's, you need to find somewhere to get change to buy a 10-trip ticket or give the bus company the extra $1.75. Damned annoying to have to buy something you don't need just to get change.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | April 3, 2007 11:10 AM

Actually I misspoke. I don't hold anyone up. I merely point out that I am broke and all that I have is this gun and people are very understanding and generous. When I ask for ID so that I can repay them they often give me their complete wallet.

Posted by: Stick | April 3, 2007 11:31 AM

Fifties rock. Two fifties beats carrying five twenties when I go to the store to buy forty pounds of pudding.

...fourty pounds of pudding.

...ahhhh, yeah!

Posted by: Pompous Magnus | April 3, 2007 12:19 PM

The ATMs in the casinos in Atlantic City (at least those at Bally's) only dispense $100 bills.

No big surprise there.

Posted by: Alvin | April 3, 2007 12:31 PM

I haven't used ATM's since I moved from San Diego. When I realized I was going through money like water I cut the card up. The bank billed me $40 for withdrawals for three more months for a card that did not exist any more. No more ATM's for me. No more with that bank either.

About 50's: I usually ask for 50's/100's around Christmas time because that is the one time of year the stores don't have a cow when you spend them. 1000 in 50's/100's takes up a lot less space in the pocket than 1000 in 20's.

Posted by: SoMD | April 3, 2007 1:07 PM

Tomcat--please explain--how has the site buried the lede on the weekly chat show?

Posted by: Fisher | April 3, 2007 2:08 PM

Before a trip to Las Vegas in January, my girlfriend withdrew cash from her credit union ATM and got a $100 in the batch. Which resulted in her handing a cab driver in Vegas the bill and saying, "Keep the change." Of course, she thought she was handing him a $10 for an $8 dollar ride. All he said was, "Thank you very much!" and he peeled away from the hotel without waiting to pick up another fare.

Posted by: Jack | April 3, 2007 2:53 PM

I really want to have the small bills I need when I need them, and that means I end up going into a branch about once every 6-8 weeks to have them break the twenties. Yeah, this would be right after I get the twenties from the ATM outside the bank. And I have to arrange my schedule to leave work a couple of hours early to do that, since there's no bank with both convenient hours and convenient locations for me. I guess that means fifties wouldn't be any worse, but I feel pretty darn grumpy about the whole drill.

Posted by: WW | April 3, 2007 3:00 PM

Maybe the site buried the lede, maybe they didn't -- but since the new typeface is such a pale color, even if the lede WERE there, who would be able to read it?

Hey, Marc, if they won't go back to the old design of the home page (which I loved -- that clutter felt so much like looking at a real page of a newspaper), at least have them revert back to the old darker colors. Not every one of their readers is a sharp-eyed 20-something...

Posted by: U.S. Grant | April 3, 2007 3:12 PM

I sometimes use the ATMS at 7-11s (because it's conveninent and they're tied to my bank, which doesn't have many branches convenient to my office), and when I withdraw my usual amount ($200), I get five 20s and a $100 bill. Can someone explain that logic? It's happened twice in the last month and a half.

Posted by: VoR | April 3, 2007 4:57 PM

Some merchants that give you cash back from debit purchases allow you to enter odd amounts of money (such as $49 instead of $50) so you can get instant change if you do that. An example is Harris Teeter.

Posted by: Kate | April 4, 2007 3:07 PM

My ATMs still give only $20s.

I had some $50s left over from a vacation; I used them one at a time at gas stations to buy about $35 worth of gas and didn't have any problems.

Posted by: Historian | April 4, 2007 3:51 PM

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